Manchester City had no answer for Nani during the derby match at Old Trafford. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
I had initially linked a piece by David Pleat of the Guardian as a fanshot that described why Nani's ability to use both feet so effectively shows his value. I thought I'd write out an actual post and expand on what he wrote. While I completely agree with Pleat that Nani's ability to either cut inside onto to his left-foot to strike at goal, or his ability to run down the touchline by the defender and send in a cross with his right-foot makes him nearly impossible to defend one-on-one, I saw things a bit differently as to why Manchester City weren't able to cope with him yesterday in the derby. Check out the link provided earlier in this paragraph and then come back and read the rest of this if you would like.
Aleksander Koralov was employed on the left flank for City, in the attacking band of their '4-3-3'. Koralov is typically a left-back, but yesterday's derby marked the second consecutive match where manager Roberto Mancini used the Serbian as an attacker; he was likely used there during the derby to provide width to a team that typically doesn't have it, and to use his defensive instincts to help provide cover for left-back Pablo Zabaleta. With the threat of Nani, what resulted was Koralov playing very deep for an attacking player and being pinned back. This was a big reason why Koralov was non-existent in the City attack for the 53 minutes he was on the pitch.
Pleat felt that Koralov wasn't offering enough support in defending Nani, and that's a contributing factor as to why Nani terrorized City throughout the match. I actually thought Koralov's over-obsession with providing cover on Nani was a main contributing factor as to why Nani wreaked havoc down the right flank, not because he didn't provide enough. Koralov being pinned back effectively took out any width in the City attack, which was a concern of mine heading into the match if Koralov was to start.
I think the other big culprit for City as to why Nani was so effective in cutting inside onto his left foot was due to inconsistent cover by Gareth Barry. There's a relationship here with Koralov's positioning. Neither James Milner nor Barry played as strict holding-midfielders yesterday, a role Nigel de Jong would have played if he were healthy. Milner often made overlapping runs forward to the right, and Barry provided cover as the holding midfielder in that case. When Barry played the role of distributor to the attack, Milner would tuck in and act as a holding midfielder, but moreso on the right-center of the pitch for City. Thus, neither played as a strict holding-midfielder. When Barry did play higher up the pitch to distribute, what often resulted was that he didn't have an outlet down the left flank because Koralov wasn't playing high enough up the pitch. When this caused a turnover, a quick pass from United's Darren Fletcher or a long diagonal ball by Paul Scholes down Nani's flank would often catch Barry out of position to provide cover on the inside, because the City midfielder would be too high up the pitch. Nani then had the option to beat Zabaleta one-on-one down the touchline and whip in a cross, or cut inside onto his left foot with an overlapping John O'Shea also to deal with from his right-back position.
More after the jump...
Because Koralov wasn't committed to attacking, Barry should have been positioning himself better throughout the match and playing deeper, more in the mold of a true holding midfielder. In a counter-intuitive way, Koralov's commitment to help out on Nani made it more difficult for City to contain Nani. He was never going be goal-side anyway of Nani on counter-attacks despite being pinned back, so the Serbian should have committed himself more to attack and provided a better outlet down City's left-flank for Barry. This could have resulted in two positive outcomes for City: (1) the possibility of forcing Nani to track back more and (2) providing another link for City's attack further up the left flank so that it didn't consistently sputter so quickly on that side. Barry should have read the game better, held deep position, and tried to re-direct the point of attack to Milner, Yaya Toure, and the right side of City's attack. This would have enabled Barry to provide inside cover on Nani.
This diagram shows the space and options that Nani had when he often got the ball with Barry out of position; he was free to use his pace and skill to continually beat the overwhelmed Zabaleta one-on-one. The few times Koralov was there help when Nani cut inside, O'Shea was free to provide an overlapping run up the right touchline. Scholes was brilliant throughout the game hitting United's wide players on the flanks with superb diagonal passes. Wayne Rooney's off the ball movement was also helpful to Nani as he was able to drag the center-backs out of position at times creating space for Nani to run onto. If you can provide Nani with opportunities such as this,I don't think there's a left-back in the Premier League that can consistently cope with Nani one-on-one.